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Montecito Union School District Updating Emergency Plans Following Jan. 9 Debris Flows

Officials are looking to shape the next plans dealing with post-fire hazards and evacuation arrangements

Stars of HOPE hang from tree branches at Montecito Union School. The uplifting ornaments arrived following the deadly and destructive Jan. 9 debris flow. Click to view larger
Stars of HOPE hang from tree branches at Montecito Union School. The uplifting ornaments arrived following the deadly and destructive Jan. 9 debris flow. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The risk of future storm events has prompted the Montecito Union School District to update evacuation protocols to ensure student and staff safety.

Three weeks ago, many Montecito Union elementary students and staff returned to their San Ysidro Road campus after the Jan. 9 debris flow created inaccessible roads, mandatory evacuation orders and wide-spread damage.

The school, which was constructed in the 1930s, was spared when the flash flooding and mudslide passed through.

A handful of stranded students were temporarily attending classes at Summerland Elementary in the Carpinteria School District until Highway 101 reopened, and hundreds of students were housed on an alternative campus at Santa Barbara City College and McKinley Elementary School across the street from SBCC.

“Powerful partnerships helped to make these kinds of efforts come to fruition,” said Susan Salcido, county superintendent of schools. “There are many individuals and entities that helped behind the scenes. All of this happened because of the collective community belief and value in supporting our children, teachers, and schools.”

Beyond utility outages and closed roadways, it was a disaster that could affect students’ emotional well-being.

Grief counseling and support staff are available to help the young learners process their experiences after the mudslide and debris flows — caused by heavy rain over the fire-ravaged hills — that left hundreds of destroyed and damaged homes and killed 23 people.

“The students are resilient,” Superintendent Anthony Ranii said. “We hear from the teachers that there is a different kind of energy. Sometimes, it’s hard to get the kids settled. We are trying to support them as best that we can.”

Ranii noted that Montecito Union staff has been “flexible and courageous… and the parents are supportive, but continue with the challenges in their daily life.”

To prepare for the arduous road to normalcy, Montecito Union leaders, staff and partners who helped them avoid delays to students' education after the major storm are looking to shape the next plans dealing with post-fire hazards and evacuation arrangements.

On Feb. 8, Santa Barbara County authorities released an updated debris-flow risk map and evacuation procedures for future storms.

County officials say an elevated flood risk remains in Montecito, and could for several years.

Montecito Union is aware of potential hazards and conducting evacuation procedures based on the new information.

“We will not be shy about canceling school to keep the kids away from the school site, and it will hopefully allow their families to locate out of the area,” Ranii said. “We will continue to be student-safety focused.”

If an evacuation is necessary, Montecito Union is developing plans in case an emergency notice is ordered.

Students could be taken by bus to an alternative location if sufficient time is given to adequately evacuate before rains hit.

“If time is allowed to do it safely…we would work with local busing companies…that’s if there is two or three hours notice,” he said.

Montecito Union staff is also preparing for short notice if a fast-moving rogue storm hits Montecito and triggers flash flooding and debris flow with little warning. 

“The question is ‘how much time do we have?’” Ranii said. “It would be rare, but we could possibly have the parents come get them, but that’s not advisable.” 

Clogged roads could hamper evacuations, Ranii noted. 

Moving to higher ground on campus is an option if the storm is stronger than predicted, with little to no notice.

“We would move the kids to a higher elevation,” Ranii said. “We are in the process now to make sure we have enough food, water, and medications for 20 hours or more before emergency responders can reach us.”

Just as families are urged to have an emergency kit on hand in case severe weather strikes — and for other types of emergencies — Montecito Union is developing a “go box” so staff members have instructional supplies ready to grab in a minute's notice in the event of a debris flow.

The plan is expected to be presented during the Montecito Union school board regular meeting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday in the school’s auditorium at 385 San Ysidro Road.

Montecito Union has served as a hub in Montecito where county officials and community members have participated in a question-and-answer session during a standing-room-only meeting.

 In addition, families filled sandbags at the campus before the storm.

“We have a lot of gratitude toward the community,” he said. “If more events are needed, we would love to host.”

The school is also planning a “Night of Heroes” to honor and thank the individuals and organizations who worked tirelessly to help Montecito Union A date has not been set, but an announcement is expected soon.

“The folks that helped Montecito Union deserve to get positive recognition from the community for being community partners,” Ranii said.

In July 2017, the Montecito Union school board chose Ranii as the new superintendent for the one-school district. 

Although Ranii is new to the district, he has eight years experience as a superintendent.

“That served me well,” said Ranii, who formerly headed the Hillsborough City School District in San Mateo County “I had high quality and skilled folks to lean on (after the Jan. 9 debris flow). The larger Santa Barbara community was reaching out.” 

Ranii added that Montecito Union is “tremendously grateful for the community of Montecito and other folks — everybody realized that getting the kids situated when we couldn’t be here and re-situate was a huge priority akin to medical attention. Public schools should be treated as an institution that is vital to the health of a community.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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